So, after ten years (that is, the entire time we’ve been together) of putting it off, I finally agreed to take the conceal-carry permit class with my partner. Every time he’s brought it up in the past, I’ve said, “Go ahead if you want. I’m not interested.” Furthermore, I thought it a waste of time and money since it’s unlikely I would ever carry a gun in any situation ever. But he found a really cheap class, in our neighborhood, that was only an additional ten dollars for a spouse. Besides, I have a hard time saying “no” to my sweetie. So I spent last Sunday morning and early afternoon learning how to carry a concealed firearm.
I don’t have a huge aversion to guns in general. I know many of you reading this might be horrified by that statement, and believe me I understand. But I grew up in the country, in a time when having a rifle rack in your pickup window was completely normal and marked no one as antisocial. I learned how to shoot at a pretty young age. I even hunted a few times (although never shot anything.)
But as far as having a gun now, I just haven’t been interested. Too much work! Carrying a firearm would require a whole psychic shift because having a gun in your possession is pointless unless you’ve prepared yourself to use it. This last would mean not just buying and carrying a gun, but putting in a lot of time practicing with it. Going to shooting ranges. Firing it a lot. Loading and re-loading. Knowing how to clear jams. Investing in a holster or some other means of concealment. Being able to access it quickly, when my adrenaline is pumping and I am scared to death. Basically, becoming comfortable with using lethal force–and this is primarily a psychological obstacle that I’m not sure any amount of training will overcome. Because no matter how hard I’ve tried (although frankly, I haven’t tried that hard), I couldn’t imagine myself doing any of this.
Besides, have you seen the types of people that hang out at shooting ranges? I went to one about two years ago, again at Jim’s request. For overt displays of testosterone, a shooting range puts all sporting events to shame. The bigger the gun, the bigger the…well, never mind. Suffice to say nobody’s fooling anyone. But I couldn’t imagine myself part of that scenario ever.
Despite all of this, I went to the class. If nothing else, it would be an interesting sociological study, right? (And it definitely was.) But you know what? I actually learned some pretty interesting things.
There were about forty people in the class, which surprised the heck out of me; I’d had visions of Jim and me getting lots of personal attention and the class zipping by (leaving the rest of the day to do something I wanted to do) because really, how could there be much interest in this? But the teacher said all of his classes were at least that big, and that they fill up very quickly. Just as surprisingly, at least half of the class was women! Most of them were like me, spouses reluctantly attending at their husbands’ requests (which I determined by taking an informal poll during the lunch break). For some reason, I found this comforting. Maybe because I wasn’t the only one there under duress, mild though it was.
I thought the class would focus on the mechanics of handgun use and safety. But the teacher spent just a few minutes on this. He spent the rest of the day, to my amazement, on all the things about handguns that made me balk: that is, he discussed the psychological aspects of handguns.
His opening statement was that he got interested in guns because he “refused to be a victim.” This got my attention. Now, I know such a statement is stereotypical of people with a pro-gun mentality, and that there are plenty of ways not to be a victim besides owning a gun. But I like the basic idea that being a responsible gun owner can contribute to feeling empowered. It reminded me of past thoughts that if I ever had a daughter, I would put her in martial arts classes. (Any other pursuits she was interested in, as well, but the martial arts would be mandatory.) Even today, women in our culture are still frequently conditioned to be victims. We are trained that submissiveness is sexy, that being quiet and demure and even passive makes us attractive. I don’t have to state here the name our culture has for bold, assertive women, but we all know it isn’t a positive one.
So he’d gotten my attention. On principle alone, I am all for women “refusing to be victims.”
After sharing his beliefs about not being a victim (some of which I agreed with and some of which I didn’t), Dog (the guy reminded me of Dog the Bounty Hunter) shared some interesting statistics. For example, that states with the most liberal conceal-carry laws have the lowest crime rates. And that Switzerland, where all men are required to give two years of military service, and all households are required by law to have an automatic rifle, has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (Dog said the lowest, but my follow-up Google research indicates it probably is not.) And it is true also that since conceal-carry was passed in my state, violent crimes have decreased slightly–although it is impossible to say whether these statistics are causally related. I should also say here that I have found it difficult to find unbiased gun information on the Internet, with numbers varying wildly depending on the source, and that getting to the true percentages would require a fair amount of time and energy. But Dog’s logic, as he presented it, sort of made sense to me: that in an armed populace, psychos are likely to think twice before opening fire on a crowd or committing a violent crime in general. He also gave several examples of situations where these maniacs were taken down quickly by an armed citizen or off-duty cop; these stories, he said, don’t make it into the mainstream news. If they’re true stories (which I know at least one was), then he’s right about that.
After this, he spent most of his time talking about all the situations and reasons where you don’t use a gun. He talked about the psychological impact of taking a life, even if it’s the life of a scumbag trying to rape or kill you. He talked about PTSD, including his own. He talked about the fact that the use of lethal force is never, ever justified to protect mere property, that it is only justified to protect life. He reiterated, over and over, that using a gun is absolutely the last resort, the very last thing you do–but also, that it is the only thing that equalizes the playing field between a woman and her male attacker (so much for my martial arts idea). He even talked about spirituality, our morally destitute society, and the necessity of forgiving those who’ve hurt us.
I did not agree with all of his beliefs, but I agreed absolutely that these were the right things to be talking about, particularly when making a decision as huge as whether or not to have the power to kill another human being.
After about four hours of listening to Dog drill home the impact of what carrying a gun would really be like, we all had to go outside and shoot in order to get our certification. It was a simple process. He loaded the guns and cleared the jams, and after a quick lesson on how to hold the gun and how to stand, we just went up to the target and shot five times. Then we went back inside, got our paperwork, and that was that. Anyone unfamiliar with guns would have absolutely no inkling what to do with one after this limited amount of training–but Dog had an answer for that too: just give him a call and make an appointment at his shooting range; that’s how you get proficient with the weapon. I have to say, this made sense to me too. After all, my initial objection to the whole thing was that I wasn’t willing to spend time becoming comfortable with a gun. Dog knew that somehow. It was almost as if he had read my mind.
I’m not saying I’m convinced that I need to carry a gun, although the 1-in-2 statistic that a woman will be the victim of a violent crime in her life was rather compelling (again, if true). What’s your plan when that happens, he asked us. What’s your plan when an intruder breaks into your house? How are you going to ensure that it’s a criminal and not your neighbor with Alzheimer’s before you shoot? What are you going to teach your children to do if they hear an intruder? What’s your escape route? Do you and your spouse have a plan if one of you is being held at gunpoint? What about when you’re downtown at night and you notice you’re being followed?
I had to admit that I didn’t have a plan, not for a single one of these scenarios. And that was a little disturbing.
Most of us go through life not thinking about these things. Most of us have no idea what to do if we’re attacked. We want to believe that our good nature and kindness to our fellow man will be enough, and that it’s best not to worry about those other things. But if I learned anything from my few hours with Dog, it was that not being a victim extends beyond how I see and conduct myself. It also means being prepared, not just for the possibility of violent crimes but for other things too, such as natural disasters, economic hard times, and even mortality. I have done a good job of taking ownership for my emotional well-being, but I now realize that this is not true on other fronts. My best plan of action for an emergency, I’m ashamed to admit, has been to hope that I never have one.
So no, I’m not going to run out and buy a gun. But I’m glad I went to this class, because I think I learned two important things. The first is that I am not as prepared as I should be for certain things, and if I don’t want to be a victim, I have to address this. The second, and much more controversial, thing I learned is that there probably is such a thing as a responsible gun owner, and that there just might be a place for these people in our society.
(The floor is now open. Know that I am not terribly prepared to defend this post because I’m still not sure how much I believe it. Opposing views are welcomed and encouraged.)
(Note: People instinctively work to keep the anxiety in their environment to a minimum all the time. I’ve read several great articles lately about effective ways to do this. This series is about ineffective ways people deal with their anxiety. If you’ve ever wondered at how some people behave, or what their motivations are, this might shed some light on it for you.)
Years ago I had a friend who tried to manage her anxiety by trying to control every aspect of her life to an alarming degree. She was hypervigilant about her diet, claiming to have many food allergies–although when she did partake of forbidden items, she never seemed to have the severe gastric consequences she claimed to be avoiding. She hated driving, and especially hated looking for a parking space downtown; it drove her into a frenzy of anxiety and blame-placing like nothing I’ve ever seen. (Are you looking? I need you to look for me! Is that guy leaving? How can you not know?? etc.) She hated being around people she didn’t know unless she was in some position of authority or control. She never left her apartment without a full complement of items she might need during the day, from analgesics and vitamins to golf equipment (even if she had no plans to go golfing). We took a one-week road trip together once, and she brought an extra suitcase full of books, and about a hundred CDs. Also during this trip, she was adamant about avoiding “big city traffic”–so we didn’t get to go to any museums or other “big city” attractions. (We circumvented Washington D.C., for gosh sakes. Washington D.C.! How can you not suck it up and want to see that city?) She spent so much time avoiding situations that might evoke anxiety, it was exhausting to be around her.
This woman is a good example of someone who attempts to control her anxiety by controlling her environment. Well, what’s wrong with that? you might ask. In many cases, nothing. Controlling and changing the things you can and letting go of the things you can’t is a perfectly normal way to deal with anxiety. But there is a spectrum, and if you stray too far to one end of it, you spend so much time and emotional energy trying to control, avoid, and manipulate your environment that there isn’t much time left over for anything else.
Here are three common versions of this hypervigilance:
Hyper-avoidance: Like my friend above. These people spend their lives avoiding people, places, things, and situations which they believe will make them anxious, to the point that the avoidance process itself becomes a source of anxiety. Some of these types consider themselves highly sensitive souls who have bigger reactions to environmental stimuli than others; others are just very fearful and have a hard time coping with unfamiliar situations (and they might have some sort of anxiety disorder).
Hyper-control: Power-seekers, the likes of which you’ll find among politicians, medical doctors (the “god complex”), and the upper echelons of corporate management. These people go to great lengths to exert as much influence as they can over other people and situations. If you’ve ever seen the show Boss, you’ve seen an example of a hyper-controller (and also a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder). People with a need for control also often choose passive people for friends and spouses because they want to feel in control of their “intimate” relationships.
Hyper-manipulation: The buttinsky mother-in-law, the drama queen, the “poor me” victim. These people get others to do what they want by playing on their guilt and pity, or by veiled threats (or sometimes, maybe not so veiled). Some married couples also do this to each other; instead of building intimacy, they threaten and cajole their mates into giving them what they want (I wouldn’t call this a marriage, but a lot of people do).
All of these are versions of control, coping skills people adapt to soothe their anxiety. While these can be effective at getting people what they want (or at least, what they think they want), these coping mechanisms tend to take on a life of their own and become hindrances to emotional stability and the capacity to build develop good, satisfying relationships.
What causes these extremes? I think there are a few contributing factors. One is that, like so many other coping mechanisms, these are a way to feel like you’re in control of (and can thus avoid dealing with) your uncomfortable, troubling emotions. If you’re good at making things go how you want them to, you never have to admit there are things (the past, your emotional pain, how it affects your life) you haven’t dealt with. You can even fool yourself: “Look at the power I have! Nothing could possibly be wrong! Those inner doubts aren’t real, this is.” The payoff is that you get to believe that ignoring those feelings is a perfectly acceptable way to deal with them.
Also, focusing on the external environment is the classic way people distract themselves from what’s going on with, well, themselves. Being controlling has the added bonus of getting good at making things go how you want them to–so you never have to admit things aren’t how you’d like them to be. People who are really good at this can be so cut off from their feelings that they truly believe they’ve overcome them. But this belief can only be maintained by constant focus on your external world and constant avoidance of your internal world. As always, attempts to avoid looking within come at a high price.
This need to control run-amok keeps people in a chronic state of anxiety soothing, so they never address their deeper issues. While they think (even if subconsciously) they’ve cleverly found a get-out-of-jail-free card, what they’ve really found is a way to keep themselves in a perpetual state of avoidance. They’ve mistaken temporary relief for bona-fide healing, and they hang onto it with everything they have–which only adds to their anxiety and creates a devastating loop of delusion and dishonesty that becomes normal and acceptable for them. Give up being controlling and manipulative? In your dreams, pal! This works for me!
Control has so many “positives,” it can be hard for people to see that it is only a ruse, a way they’re avoiding their problems and not a way they’re dealing with them. The sense of power can feel good. Or at least, they mistake it for good, when it’s really just a temporary distraction from feeling bad–which is why they keep doing controlling things. The temporary nature of the “good” feelings from control have to be re-created over and over and over. It becomes a way of life.
This is how monsters are created, because in this chronic state of self-delusion and self-denial, people are capable of just about anything. (They are as divorced from their conscience as they are from their other feelings.) It may not seem like the atrocious acts of psychopathic sickos are borne out of attempts to soothe anxiety. But this is how the behavior starts. The need for control is strongest in people who feel out of control, and an extreme sense of feeling out of control, particularly when combined with antisocial and/or narcissistic tendencies, can have disastrous results. People with highly invalidating childhoods, like Adolph Hitler and most serial killers, fit this profile. As hard as it is to fathom acts of violence as a way to feel control over unresolved feelings, that’s usually what they are–or at least, that’s how they start.
Yes, a very small percentage of people end up monsters. But the control, manipulation, and hypervigilance you see around you all the time are less lethal versions of the same thing. And emotionally speaking, the results are just as unsatisfying.
Few people end up as power hungry politicians or sociopathic monsters, but we all have our own versions of control, manipulation, and vigilance. When we’re scared, when our stress level is high, when we’re in an unfamiliar or threatening situation–or maybe just when we’re pissed off at our partner–we are all capable of using these defenses to cope with our anxiety. Most of us go there temporarily, until our heads have cleared and our adrenaline has stopped pumping. We apologize. We move on. And we try to figure out how we can do it differently, because that feeling of being manipulative or controlling isn’t a good one.
Controlling behavior is ultimately self-defeating. It keeps you in a reactive place, even if it feels like the opposite, because all your decisions center around dealing with your anxiety–and thus, are reactive. And it doesn’t make for good relationships because if you’re too controlling or manipulative, people learn to hide their true thoughts and feelings from you, or avoid you altogether.
Instead, learning to increase your tolerance for anxiety, to accept its inevitability in your life, and to face it with as much emotional honesty as you can muster is a better way to go. And trying to keep your distance from the people who have a permanent address in this controlling place is a good idea, too; they just don’t have a lot to offer.
(Note: People instinctively work to keep the anxiety in their environment to a minimum all the time. I’ve read several great articles lately about effective ways to do this. This series is about ineffective ways people deal with their anxiety. If you’ve ever wondered at how some people behave, or what their motivations are, this might shed some light on it for you.)
When I was playing a lot of poker, I saw people confuse skill with luck all the time. They would have a few winning sessions and think they understood the game. And this wasn’t just in my personal experience. I see people playing on television, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, make terrible mistakes, win anyway, and believe themselves to be expert players. It’s an extremely common phenomenon in poker, because, as the pros say, “the long run in poker is just sooooo long.” This means that you can be lucky for a long time, so long that you get fooled into thinking you know what you’re doing when you really don’t. I’ve cringed as I’ve watched overly aggressive young men try to out-bully each other, thinking this is what makes a player great. But it isn’t. I know some really great players, people who make their living at it. These people are aggressive when necessary, but they are also observant and analytical. They approach the poker table like a problem to be solved. If you know what to look for, watching a truly great player is like watching a ballet. It takes years to develop those skills, skills that include (but are not limited to) patience, timing, reading people, and an absolutely thorough mathematical understanding of the game. I love poker. Sigh. I wish I was better at it.
My partner Jim works in an industry where people frequently confuse reactivity with proactivity. He sells computer software to the CEOs and CFOs of large companies. The deals can be extremely complex, often involving dozens of people and two or three years of work and negotiations. He was fortunate to have had good mentors early in his career, people who showed him how to conduct these intricate sales cycles through skill and knowledge rather than through anxiety and reactivity. It’s a difficult thing to do well, and most people in the field, frankly, aren’t very good at it. Good salesmanship at any level–but especially this level–requires excellent listening skills, empathy, and a desire to help the customer solve his problems. Many–probably most–salespeople don’t understand this very well, so they aren’t good at managing these sales cycles. And because they don’t know how to manage the sales cycles, they feel chronically anxious and out of control. Their anxiety compels them to take action, but such action usually has more to do with feeling like they’re accomplishing something rather than actually doing so. They spend almost all of their time in Covey’s first and third quadrants, reacting to customer queries and management demands rather than carrying out a strategic plan of action.
Many of Jim’s colleagues are among the most anxious, most reactive people I’ve ever known. What’s worse, they are clueless about it. They all think they’re good at their jobs. And similar to poker, when things go well for them it reinforces their reactive behavior, to the point that most sales organizations are rampant with this anxiety-driven, react-rather-than-strategize mentality. This happens in other organizations as well, but I think because of the immense stress and pressure to perform that salespeople are under, the anxiety and reactivity is a little easier to see.
At least it is for an outsider like me–or for a strategic planner like Jim, who must run interference for his reactive colleagues’ blunders on a daily basis.
How can people be so reactive and so blind to their own lack of effectiveness? I think it boils down, more than anything, to a lack of self-awareness. People attribute good luck to skill when they’re delusional about their own capabilities. (Conversely, they attribute bad outcomes to other people’s errors, never to bad luck or their own incompetence.) And they are delusional about their capabilities usually for two reasons. First, they don’t know what they don’t know. Second, they’ve mistaken correlation for causality; that is, they’ve attributed good outcomes to their own actions. They believe the connection is a positive one, indicating that they’re doing all the right things and that they should keep doing them.
One reason people remain ignorant and delusional about their capabilities is that the human brain naturally looks for patterns, and will create them where there aren’t any, or where they aren’t yet apparent because they’re too complex to see. If you’ve spent any time in a casino at all, you’ve seen stellar examples of how people create patterns where there aren’t any: some people will only sit in a certain seat at a blackjack table, or only gamble while wearing a certain shirt, or while holding their good luck charm, etc., etc. While most of us see this as superstition, die hard gamblers believe that these rituals cause them to win. They’re also good at creating explanations, when they lose, as to why the ritual didn’t work: “I forgot I should never play blackjack on a Wednesday,” for example. (The truth is you should never play blackjack at all unless you can count cards or don’t care about losing your money–but that is another topic.) Bad poker players take this a step further, becoming more aggressive when they’re winning and more passive when they’re losing–they truly believe this is the rational action, based on “how the cards are running.” This impulse is so powerful that even good players can succumb to it if they’re having a particularly good or particularly bad game.
Everybody does this to some degree. Finding patterns is how the human brain makes sense of things. If you pay attention, you will see yourself trying to find patterns all the time; sometimes the patterns are real and accurate, and sometimes it’s just your brain attempting to fill in unsettling blanks. Being able to tell the difference is a big step toward understanding causality, and how it really works in your life. It is also a step toward greater self-awareness, as dealing with “life on life’s terms” always is.
Another reason people misjudge their capabilities is that they want to believe they have control over things that they simply do not. It can be a harsh reality to accept that your fate–whether at the poker table, in your career, or even doing something as mundane as driving–is very much out of your hands. (“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”) So instead of accepting this existential truth and working within a legitimate sphere of influence (small as it often is), people reject it and instead choose to believe that they have power and control that doesn’t exist. And because this is what they want to believe, they will ignore evidence to the contrary and see only the evidence that reinforces their wishful thinking.
The underlying reason for both of these is anxiety*, or more to the point, the desire to alleviate anxiety. According to Wikipedia, anxiety is a protective mechanism which alerts an organism to danger. Humans (and other animals) are biologically hard-wired to alleviate anxiety and thus keep their world feeling as cozy and secure as they possibly can. In our modern world, where anxiety centers more around money and career (and for some of us, emotional) issues than it does around survival, it is much easier to delude yourself into a false sense of security than it would be if a lion were trying to make dinner out of you. This is particularly true if the issues that evoke the anxiety are complex, disturbing ones, where solving them would require research, analysis, critical thinking, and intellectual honesty (i.e, “I am pretty much powerless over this situation”). Many of today’s problems fall into this category.
The short of it is that many people want to believe they have control over things they don’t, or that they understand things that they really don’t, because 1) admitting that this is not so evokes strong feelings of anxiety, and 2) the work of actually understanding the problem is more than they want to do.
Self-delusion is just easier.
You’d think that nowadays, with the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips, this problem would be diminishing at a rapid pace. Anyone who really wants to understand poker can find hundreds of websites and books about it in less than three seconds on Google. The same goes for how to sell, and just about any other problem plaguing the human race. You’d think people would take advantage of this bountiful trove and seek to alleviate their anxiety by increasing their knowledge–then bask in the resulting gains of self-confidence that would inevitably follow (knowledge is power–a proven causal relationship).
Sadly, this is not the case. According to The Narcissism Epidemic, people are becoming more delusional and less self-aware. Today, people are more likely to believe in their own intelligence, talent, attractiveness, self-worth, and general all around greatness despite many indications to the contrary. Here are a just a few (of many) statistics from the book:
Over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.
In the 1950s, just 12% of respondents agreed with the statement, “I am an important person.” By the 1980s, 80% felt important.
In 1967, 45% of American students felt that “Being well off is an important life goal.” By 2004, 74% agreed with that statement.
In 1976, only 18% of students said they earned an A or A- average. In 2006, 33% said they were A students–a whopping 83% increase. We have had less than a 1% improvement in actual learning over 30 years (according to standardized testing), but an 83% increase in A grades…Apparently, our culture has decided to go with the strategy of boosting the fantasy of success rather than success itself.
“The fantasy of success” is exactly right. What a telling phrase for the self-delusion that seems to be at the root of so much of the irrationality and reactivity we see today. While common sense demands that we deal with our anxiety by increasing our understanding and awareness about what makes us anxious, narcissism steps in and says it’s good enough to just pretend that we’ve done so. It is astonishing to me that this is the prevalent mindset these days, but it seems to be. The human capacity for self-delusion cannot, apparently, be underestimated.
Contrary to popular belief, self-delusion is not an effective tool for decreasing anxiety. It can be useful temporarily, in crisis situations. But as a standard operating procedure, it can only keep you perpetually stuck in a state of unreality, never to truly know either yourself or the space you occupy. I cannot for the life of me understand why this would appeal to anybody.
*I am speaking of normal anxiety, and not anxiety disorder, which is a different issue.
Before I started down my path of recovery in earnest, I did a lot of reading about recovery. I devoured self-help books, mostly about addiction and relationships (the banes of my young adult existence). I learned a lot about what was wrong with me (or at least, what I thought was wrong with me). But I didn’t stop getting high, and the quality of my relationships didn’t improve, and I remained depressed, anxious, and hopeless most of the time.
I suppose I could count this information-gathering period as part of my recovery. But I don’t, because even though I learned a lot about why I was the way I was, the knowledge didn’t help me change. The knowledge, rich as it was, was just another form of intellectualizing. And as long as I kept everything in my head–which was exactly where I wanted to keep it–I wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t going to get better. I was caught in a closed loop that wouldn’t let me out and couldn’t let anybody else in. Above all, the unrecovered life is isolationist: letting someone see my inner world was the most terrifying prospect imaginable.
Even therapy was primarily an intellectual process for me, at least in the beginning. After several false starts in my early-to-mid-twenties, I did eventually find a lovely woman whom I grew to love and trust in a surprisingly short time. She was so kind, so validating, and so completely understanding. Not to mention patient…that first year must have been hard for her, not saying the things I needed to hear but wasn’t ready to. She was now part of my loop, but it was still closed to everybody else. So I remained mostly stuck, depressed, and addicted. But she did give me some hope that change was possible, and I grabbed onto that like a life preserver (which, psychologically speaking, I suppose it was). This was the beginning.
Back in my 12 Step days, I regularly gave thanks at AA meetings to Officer Baker, the policeman who pulled me over and charged me with the DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) that was the beginning of the end of isolation for me. I haven’t done this in years, but today I am officially re-thanking Officer Baker for arresting me that fateful night. You see, I had always believed that if I didn’t have any consequences, then I didn’t have to change. (In retrospect, this is insane, because I didn’t consider my depression, low self-esteem, shame, rage, resentment, and inability to have relationships to be consequences. This really paints a picture of how utterly ignorant and misguided I was.)
In any case, I considered the DWI a “real” consequence, and I’d always told myself that if I ever had any real consequences from my drinking and drugging, I would have to do something about it. (I guess I didn’t consider seizures and six-hour nosebleeds from my cocaine use consequences, because they hadn’t given me pause, either.) Something in me knew it was time. I had gotten off the cocaine and other hard drugs, but in the year or so since doing that, my drinking had progressed to the point of blackouts. I couldn’t have one drink without closing down the bar, and I’d begun waking up with mysterious bruises and hearing stories about my exploits that felt like they were about somebody else. That was scary.
When I told my therapist about the DWI, she suggested I take the test to determine whether I was chemically dependent. “I don’t have to,” I told her. “I know I am.” She suggested I take it anyway, so that we could look at official options. I did, and of course, she suggested I check myself into a treatment program ASAP.
I either trusted her enough to take her advice, or all the fight had gone out of me, but I did it. Two weeks after this fateful conversation, I found myself in an outpatient treatment program. It was here that I really began to heal, because it was here that I really began to come out of myself and become part of a community. It took me awhile to connect these things, but today I know that my healing began in earnest when I let my walls down and began, instead, to build bridges.
My treatment counselor was also a strong, warm, compassionate woman who set a powerful example of what this path could result in. She was so confident and together that the stories she shared about her using days created a shock of cognitive dissonance that left me wanting to know more, more, more. I wanted what she had.
Even so, I’m not sure if I would have stayed the path without the six months of court-ordered AA meetings handed down in my DWI sentence. Sharing myself was excruciating, with the feelings of exposure so overwhelming and terrifying that they often caused me to hole up in my apartment for days, licking my wounds and wondering how I was going to put myself through that again. Then my therapist would make it all feel better somehow, fortifying me just enough to make it to the next treatment session or the next AA meeting.
Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to lie in these group settings. I knew that people did, and I understood why, but I couldn’t do it. Watching them lie just made me feel so sad. Something inside me, something beyond my capacity to understand, knew that those rooms were built for truth–and that the truth would set me free. And so I found the strength to keep going back, to keep sharing my truth as best I could, and to listen and encourage others to do the same.
Today I know that this sharing is where the magic happens. I may have been able to change had I not become involved in a group, but it would have taken exponentially longer, and the quality of the change would have been very different. I think in sharing with peers–therapists are helpful, but it’s not the same–we are forced to put ourselves out there and become vulnerable, and it is in this vulnerability that we first begin to re-connect with all the big, dark, scary feelings that have been bottlenecked inside us for so long. I think it is probably impossible to bare yourself to a group and not have a visceral, gut-level, bone-shaking response that you feel down to your toes. Sometimes it is terror; sometimes it is exhilaration. But it is this physical response that jars us out of our heads and into the world of true ownership, true self-expression, true recovery.
Accepting painful truths is very, very difficult without a community of people who can mirror and validate our experience. In a way, they are re-parenting us, giving us the encouragement and support to blossom into our truest selves; the encouragement and support we were supposed to get as children, but did not. In lieu of having such a community, I think it would be unbelievably difficult, and maybe impossible, to ever fully own the painful truths of our childhoods and our own emotional brokenness. Doing so would just be too threatening to contemplate alone, in the dark, scary neighborhood of our unadulterated intellect. Or so it was for me.
Thus, in a very real, very literal way, my recovery community has saved my life. And I know I have been part of that for others, and that is a terrific feeling. Telling stories, hearing those of others, the magic of feeling that remarkable similarity when for so long we thought we were alone, hearing the messages “you’re not alone,” “you’re not crazy,” and “you matter.” Feeling heard. All of this is what heals us. And you can’t get it from books.
Books help, and there is a place for them in everyone’s recovery. But they can’t get us into that visceral place where we so need to be. Only baring ourselves before other people, and allowing them to bare themselves before us, can do that. And I am so grateful and feel so privileged to have kept company with so many wonderful groups over the years who’ve helped me heal in more ways than I can even recognize or name.
I also want to say here that I don’t mean to glamorize this group process or gloss over the very real issues that can
occur when recovering people come together. Many of the groups I’ve been a part of no longer exist, or live on in very different forms than when I was a member. Some of them grew apart naturally because as we all changed, our issues changed. Others came apart at the seams after dishonesty and betrayals of confidence. Sometimes a group just had a focus that didn’t work for me, though it worked for many of my fellow travelers. Other times, a group ended after healthy and loving “graduations” and a conscious decision to move on. And there is always the ever present possibility of groupthink, inhibiting people from speaking their truth for fear of disapproval. No group I have ever taken part in has been perfect. I doubt there even is such a thing, or that I would recognize it if there were. It doesn’t matter, though. All that matters is that I was able to move from that awful place of isolation into the imperfect-yet-supremely-healing community of recovery.
It takes a village to raise a really (emotionally) healthy person. Healthy doesn’t mean “fixed” or “perfect;” far from it. It just means we’re on the path. The scales have fallen, we know what we’re up against, we accept the truth of our situations, and we deal.
I just wanted to say “thanks” to all of you who’ve been part of my journey, from Officer Baker to my current ACoN friends. I hope you all know what you mean to me.
If we truly desire to reach a better understanding of each other we have to stop demonizing each other and replace hate with hope.–Karen Hughes
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. – Mother Teresa
Demonizing goes hand in hand with reactivity. When people are reactive, they are externally focused: instead of choosing their actions based on their own thoughts, values, and desires, they re-act to external stimuli. As the Al-Anoners would say, they let other people, places, and things dictate their behavior rather their own needs.
When people are externally focused, they tend to see the world as a big, scary place that needs to be corralled and controlled. They tend to feel helpless and see themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control. Yes, many circumstances are indeed beyond our control. But paradoxically, reactivity tends to make people focus on what they can’t control–other people, places, and things–and ignore what they can: how they choose to deal with these people, places, and things. (This is Al-Anon 101, and one of the most useful lessons I learned in 12 Step meetings.)
One of the most unfortunate side effects of being reactive and externally focused is demonizing the other, also known as scapegoating, or, simply, blaming. When something goes wrong, a reactive person focuses on where to place the blame. He may or may not also look for solutions, but blame-placing usually takes precedence.
I grew up with a reactive, narcissistic, blame-placing father. As I’ve said in other posts, placing blame was the primary concern when something went wrong in my family. Blame was assigned and punishment meted out accordingly. We also had a family scapegoat who, when fault wasn’t clear or the issues were too complicated to work out, took on the “existential,” free-floating blame that kept the home fires burning. A reactive person, and especially a rageful and narcissistic one like my father, always needs to have a “demon” on which to hang his troubles. His life isn’t complete without it.
You can see demonizing at all levels of human interaction. When the President addressed the nation earlier this week about the Boston bombings, his main focus was on apprehending and punishing the person/people responsible. Now yes, of course we want to catch the bombers and bring them to justice. But I’m not sure how healthy it is for we, as a nation, to find comfort in this. We tend to seek vengeance and rejoice in trouncing our enemies instead of seeing the apprehension as the necessary ending to a tragic situation. Because violence in any form, even when necessary, is nothing to rejoice about. Such rejoicing is the result of a reactive mentality, a mentality that says the problem is “out there” and thus solvable by use of aggression to make things go as you think they should. The bomber is coming from a reactive mindset, but so are those who seek revenge (as opposed to justice). And once again, the deeper issues (in this case, probably American tax policy or foreign policy) go unaddressed, perpetuating the chronic cycle of violence and vengeance that takes place on the world stage and all the way down.
All perpetrators are demonizers who see themselves as victims. They have to see themselves as victims, because this is how they rationalize the aggression they use against others. As soon as they’ve found someone to blame, they’ve exonerated themselves, and then–let the games begin! I will make you pay for how I feel is their mantra and their modus operandi. And the scariest part is that, from the U.S. President on down to my bullying father, they truly believe it. When a man says to his wife, “You drive me to drink” or “You must want me hit you,” he really believes it. He’s found a way to twist facts around in his head so as to vindicate himself and make that Other the source of all his problems: his unhappiness, his rage, his insecurity, his temper, his dishonesty, his political posturing–all are the fault of some hapless scapegoat, some demon sent from hell to make his life miserable. He is the victim, and he is unlikely to see himself any other way.
In the vacuum that happens when a person is not raised to have a healthy sense of personal boundaries and responsibility, blame and blame-placing rush in to fill the void. They are two sides of the same coin: you either identify with the demonizer or you identify with the demonized, and learn your coping skills accordingly. Sadly, we either become the perpetrators, demonizing others in order to avoid the emotional pain of our internal world, or we become the scapegoats, taking on that burden for those who refuse to take it on for themselves. It’s a sad situation, but it’s the likeliest outcome of an unhappy childhood. Demonizing and being demonized seem like the most natural thing in the world to a person who grows up this way.
It can take a lot of effort to move past this ingrained mindset. Usually such effort is only made after a great deal of emotional pain and repeated experiences of things going wrong in your life. Since being demonized feels so awful–much worse than doing the demonizing–it is the scapegoats of the world who tend to seek change. From beneath their burden of projected shame, guilt, and rage, they have much more incentive to do so.
This is not to say that the demonizers of the world are unable to change. Many do. But being the demonizer is a much stronger defense against one’s repressed emotional pain than is being the demonized. Not only does it involve greater irrationality and rationalization to maintain, it also tends to result in a sense of power, however pointless and misguided it may be. The demonizers of the world are not only the bullying narcissistic fathers and controlling narcissistic mothers, they are also the Adolph Hitlers and the Joseph Stalins. The impulse to demonize, and the need to rationalize doing so, is the underlying cause of much of the aggression in the world.
As people who grew up with reactive, narcissistic, blame-placing parents, we have three choices: accept our role as scapegoats, follow in their footsteps, or look within and come to terms with what we find there. The first choice feels awful. The second choice feels better, but only at the expense of our emotional truth and the constant need to construct a false reality that projects our inner turmoil onto innocents. The third choice is our only option if we want to take back our lives and and find some true sense of autonomy.
The payoff of demonizing is that you don’t have to look within. Thus, you think you can escape all those nasty, uncomfortable feelings and conveniently project them somewhere where they cease to be your responsibility. But this is a straw man, a solution that is no solution at all. Because no matter how hard you try to escape those feelings, they never, ever go away. No matter how much you blame and scapegoat and try to make your rage somebody else’s problem, you are still stuck with it. What feels like power is really just the Wizard behind the curtain creating illusions that fool even himself. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
As appalled as I am by the demonizers of the world, and as much as I’ve had to learn to protect myself from their hostility and rage, I also feel sorry for them. They are the lost souls who do not know they are lost souls. If their delusions didn’t cause so much harm in the world, they would be pathetic.
I heard a story on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me the other day about a ban placed on triangular shaped flapjacks (in England, a flapjack is a granola bar, not a pancake) after a student was hit in the face with one. The sharp corners of the triangular-shaped bar could potentially put an eye out, deemed school officials, so the flapjack providers were told to henceforth allow only rectangular shaped ones into the school. The ban was so ridiculous that it was lifted after a short time. Yet the fact that such a ban could happen at all is a good example, I think, of the extreme reactivity of our modern culture.
Wikipedia defines psychological reactivity as “a phenomenon that occurs when individuals alter their performance or behavior due to the awareness that they are being observed.” In other words, when people are being reactive, they are externally-focused rather than internally-focused. This means that reactivity happens when people care too much about circumstances and too little about their own values, common sense, and critical thinking. When we react, as opposed to when we respond, we are not centered. It’s the difference between choosing your behavior and letting others choose it for you.
And it is ubiquitous in our culture.
School bans are just the beginning. You can see this reactivity just about everywhere you look. Another absurd example is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a champion of the war against obesity, attempting to restrict the size of soda you can buy. (Does he actually believe a person won’t just go buy another one? Or two small ones? Or go to a grocery store and buy as much as he wants, for the love of Pete?) And then there is the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), making us remove our belts and shoes, restricting our liquid containers to 2 ounces (never mind that you can have an unlimited number of them), and dosing us with X-rays before we board a plane, all in the name of fighting terrorism. I don’t know about you, but these dogmatic bureaucrats don’t make me feel any safer, especially when I see men in their 80s, with canes, detained for further questioning. (I actually saw this last time I flew.)
Reactivity is all over politics, too, where the careers of politicians are made or broken by how they react to public opinion and the latest crisis (no wonder it feels like nothing ever gets handled well and why so many issues feel like constantly moving targets). It also thrives in the media, where the 24 hour news channels compete with attention-grabbing headlines and sensationalistic stories meant to titillate more than inform. And you can see it in almost any workplace, as people strive to make themselves look good, often at the expense of other people and of achieving longer-term goals. All of these are examples of externally-focused behavior.
The primary problem with reactivity (or at least the problem I’m looking at here) is that it is not about solving problems so much as it is about alleviating anxiety. When people are in reactive mode, they are acting out of fear and anxiety and not from a place of rational thought. Or, when there is an audience to consider, as in politics and the media, they are acting to produce a desired effect (re-election, higher ratings, selling a product). So very few problems ever get addressed at their root, and very few problems ever get truly solved. Instead they just get regurgitated, over and over and over, in an endless cycle of crisis and unsolvability.
A good example is the latest gun control debate, which was re-awakened by the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook). Instead of looking at all the massively complex issues that underlie such an act, politicians and the media have focused almost solely on guns. This is like focusing on matches in the war on smoking, or sizes of soda in the war on obesity. It misses the point almost entirely, and will not result in understanding why a person would make such a decision. Not that guns aren’t an issue, because they are–but they are at the end of the causal chain and not at the beginning of it, where intervention is actually possible. (By the time that kid picks up that gun, it’s too late.) But because guns provide a simple, polarizing target and create the illusion that “we” (society) are dealing effectively with a serious issue (regardless of which side of the debate you happen to be on), the powers that be latch onto them like barnacles onto a whale. Nobody cares that it’s all for show–much like the security theater the TSA engages in–as long as we can feel like something relevant is happening. (e.g., “If flapjacks are shaped a certain way, we can prevent all possible harm to students!” “If we restrict access to guns, people will stop being violent!”) Surfaces get manipulated and rearranged in an aggressive, frenzied sort of way, but underlying issues are rarely addressed. If you pay attention, you can see this happening just about anywhere you look, from politicians vying for sound bytes and photo ops to the drama queen down the block who can’t seem to get her life in order.
(Note: I know gun control is a complex, highly charged issue. I don’t mean to dumb it down, or make it sound unnecessary. I am just saying that people focus on it too much because it’s easier than looking at the deeper issues involved, and that they do so because it creates an illusion of control that doesn’t really exist.)
Why is our modern culture so reactive? Probably because of the illusion of control I mention above: feeling like we’re in control is how we alleviate anxiety. Also, probably because reactivity is just easier. It demands no detailed understanding of an issue and few critical thinking skills. It requires no calling on one’s personal value system for answers. (As I’ve said many times, it’s much easier to believe we’re doing something than to actually do something.) And reactivity usually involves blame, too, another favorite American pasttime that dumbs everything down to the level of demonization and scapegoats, thus exonerating us from personal responsibility.
There is little we can do about the reactivity that bombards us every day in the media, in politics, and in our workplace; part of being less reactive is accepting what we can’t change. But we can be aware of it so that it exerts as little influence over our thinking and our lives as possible. And, we can work at becoming less reactive ourselves. This can be a tall order, not only because we’re swimming against the cultural tide, but because so many of us learn from a young age that reactivity is perfectly normal. We see our parents poking, prodding, and manipulating each other, pushing buttons and triangulating, pouting, raging, and plotting. How, in such an environment, can a child learn that she gets to choose her responses? That she is supposed to choose her responses? In a culture that normalizes reactivity, it can be hard to see this, much less change it; in a family that normalizes reactivity, it can be almost impossible.
It is an exceptional child indeed who can transcend this miasma. Most of us have to re-learn communication skills as adults, and not being reactive is at the top of that list, largely because being reactive just feels so bad: when we react rather than respond, we’re not in control. We’re letting other people, places, things, and our own anxiety dictate our behavior. It feels awful, usually long before we know why it feels awful.
In the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses a matrix to talk about reactivity; actually, he calls it Time Management Skills, but tomato, tomahto–the model is really illustrating the impotence of reactivity. The matrix is: Important/Urgent, Important/Not Urgent, Not Important/Urgent, and Not Important/Not Urgent:
Covey’s Time Management Matrix.
People with poor time management skills (i.e., reactive people) tend to spend the bulk of their time in the Important/Urgent and Not Important/Urgent quadrants, which means they’re constantly dealing with emergencies and “putting out fires.” Then, because they’re so exhausted from all this crisis management, they tend to spend the rest of their time in the Not Important/Not Urgent quadrant (essentially, screwing off) to alleviate their stress. The goal, Covey says, is to spend the bulk of your time in the Not Urgent/Important quadrant. This is the planning quadrant, where you analyze, strategize, and problem-solve before things turn into crises. The more time you spend here, the less time you will spend in the other quadrants, and the more effective, productive, and proactive you will be.
Years ago in a meditation retreat, I did a guided meditation I’ll call “The Mountain.” The guide had us imagine ourselves to be a mountain, tall and deep, strong and old. Though the seasons changed, and the weather battered it, and time passed and the surface of the mountain constantly changed, the mountain itself remained solid, rooted deeply in the earth, grounded, unchanged. The point, of course, was that we should be like the mountain: that we should identify more with our inner character, and not worry so much about the ephemeral events taking place on the surface.
This too is a lesson about reactivity. If we are centered and inner-focused, we will be less inclined to react to the external events that are inevitably going to pummel us throughout life. I have found the mountain to be a helpful image as I strive to become less reactive, particularly in relation to working through my past and living life on my own terms.
Thinking about my relatives at my mother’s funeral got me thinking about intellectualizing and what a huge coping skill/defense mechanism it is for so many people. I think in the modern world, a world where faith in science has largely replaced faith in God (even amongst many who consider themselves religious) and so many of the complex, messy facets of the human condition (e.g., thoughts, dreams, values, spirituality) have been reduced to chemical reactions and electronic impulses, intellectualizing has become a common way for people to deal with anxiety. Maybe even for people who have not survived any particular trauma.
Intellectualizing, according to Wikipedia, is “a ‘flight into reason’, where the person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. A situation is treated as an interesting problem that engages the person on a rational basis, whilst the emotional aspects are completely ignored as being relevant.” It goes on to say that “Intellectualization protects against anxiety by repressing the emotions connected with an event…It allows one to rationally deal with a situation, but may cause suppression of feelings that need to be acknowledged to move on.”
I have worked for a couple of decades now at getting healthy. When I began this work, I was an addict, terrified of my own shadow, depressed, anxious, and with very few skills to get me through life. In those days, the only thing that kept me going was my brain. I guessed and bluffed my way through life, looking normal on the outside while my insides were in an almost constant state of panic (unless high). I had no sense of what I wanted or who I was to guide me.
Without my intellectualizing, I don’t know what I would have done. I probably would not be alive today. I’m not saying my brain is more special than anybody else’s. I’m just saying that it was all I had. And, that I think this is true for a lot of people who find themselves in a similar spot. For this reason, intellectualizing can be very hard to face. It can feel like giving up your whole self, your security blanket, and your primary survival skill all at the same time.
A large part of my recovery has been digging up buried feelings and integrating them, to the best of my ability, with my current self. This was hard in so many ways. First of all, because I had no feelings to guide me, I didn’t know that I had no feelings to guide me: a catch-22 that so many people stay stuck in, not seeing the forest for the trees. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. Second, integrating my feelings was terrifying. As a child, I dissociated from the biggest, scariest, most threatening feelings, and these were what had to come back to me. As an adult, these old feelings did, in fact, feel like death itself knocking on my door. My fear and anxiety were so big, I actually felt like I may not survive owning them (“owning” being such a trite word for what this was like). Third, I had a hard time seeing the plus side of putting myself through this. What’s the point of having all this pain, grief, and anguish? I asked myself. This made it hard to keep going.
But a weird paradox occurred. During these times of terrible fear, my rational mind, which had been constantly trying to distract me from these feelings, suddenly flipped a switch and became my best ally. It was as though once my mind understood that integrating these feelings was important–and that they were not a threat to my survival–it took my hand and guided me through the process. And as I integrated the emotional with the intellectual, I came to see how necessary both of these parts are to a healthy sense of self.
It probably sounds weird when I speak of these parts of myself as separate entities, as though my mind, my feelings, and the integration process itself were all separate creatures that I had to corral and tame–and who is the “I” doing this taming, anyway? But I think psychologically, they were separate creatures. When we split off parts of ourselves to survive the unsurvivable, they truly feel like a foreign entity when they come back to us. They bubble out of the subconscious like amorphous, unrecognizable blobs of goo, and they are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. Strange, uncomfortable, maybe even forbidden. We don’t really want them, as they are messy and hey, I’ve been doing alright so far without them, haven’t I?
My family, a family full of really sharp people, is a family of intellectualizers. People who are smart enough and high-functioning enough to get by on brain power alone, and as far as I can tell, have done so for at least a few generations now. This is a family that prides itself on intellectual prowess. Being smart, getting good grades, and having a college degree are the standards by which all success is measured. I remember family gatherings as a kid. When people weren’t arguing over politics or impressing each other with witty stories about themselves, everyone had their nose in a book or magazine. Sometimes the living room would have eight or ten people in it, completely silent as we all read. The cousins in particular didn’t have a lot to say to each other, as we rarely saw each other and had little interest in connecting.
As a kid, I never questioned this behavior as anything other than normal. But looking back, I can see how odd it is for people to read at family gatherings and for cousins not to play together. And as I started to get healthier, I began to question a few other things, too. If everyone in this family is so smart, I wondered, why then has nobody achieved much of anything? Why has nobody invented anything, started a company, written a book? For a family full of intellectuals, we had woefully few impressive accomplishments under our belts.
Now, I am not saying that worldly accomplishments should be the measure of success. I am just saying that in a family that so prized intellectual achievement, you’d think there would be more objective standards to measure intellectual merit. But there are not. We are a family of bright, middle class, underachievers. Teachers, nurses, middle managers. Most measures of intelligence in my family seemed to hinge on the ability to come up with witty remarks, and to tell stories that proved ourselves smarter than the dullards we encountered while going about our daily business. These were the things my FOO prized, and the things around which they bonded.
Also, out of nine cousins, all in our forties now, only two of us have children (both of them my sisters). The rest of us have chosen not to, and not because of any pressing ambitions.
Now that I have re-integrated some of my emotional intelligence and understand its importance to success in life (however you measure it), I suspect that the patterns I describe here are the patterns of people who live life almost completely in their heads, intellectualizing their feelings instead of having them. Although my father was the only alcoholic of his siblings, I think all of them grew up in an environment that did not encourage children to be spontaneous, playful, and free with their emotions. I think all of them grew to adulthood by dissociating from these childish impulses. And I think because of that, there is a big, sad, gaping hole where their emotional intelligence is supposed to be. And because of that big gaping hole, their children (my generation) have the same hole. It’s hard to know what you don’t know, but it’s even harder to teach it.
It just fits. Bright, educated people can only go so far in life without emotions to guide them. Desires, wants, and passions are the fuel that propels us forward in life. If we’re cut off from our feelings, we may have skills, but we have little impetus. As good as this family looks from the outside, most of us have spent our lives just getting by.
Sadly, I don’t think my family is all that different from a lot of other families. I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and I’ve become fairly accurate at recognizing the patterns of intellectualizing, of being emotionally shut down. I think many of us recognize it without knowing what it is. Feeling exhausted, numb, or agitated around people are all signs that something isn’t quite right. People whose body movement is stilted or awkward. Language that confuses thinking and feeling, using one word to mean the other, or talking matter-of-factly about something which is obviously an emotional issue, are also signs of a person distanced from her feelings. None of these things by themselves indicate a person has permanently dissociated from her feelings; more evidence is required to determine that.
But I do see it a lot, and I have come to believe that intellectualizing is a common defense mechanism for many, many people. The sirens of the intellect call to us from so many fronts today, it’s incredibly easy to live in our heads and believe this is perfectly normal. And there is not a lot of accessible information, nor very many role models, out there for healthy emotional integration (including many of the self-help gurus who preach it). It is yet another casualty of our increasingly superficial, narcissistic culture. If we want it, we generally have to swim upstream to get it.
Intellectualizing is normal in times of stress and anxiety. Dissociating from scary feelings is an important survival skill in many situations. But if we live in this place, we miss out on a lot of good stuff.
“Hanging onto yourself” is a concept that David Schnarch talks about in his relationship guide, The Passionate Marriage. He contends that the health of an intimate relationship is proportional to the participants’ ability to stay focused on their own wants and needs, particularly during times of conflict with each other. Which makes sense, because if we repeatedly get too flustered to communicate, or give in to make peace whether an issue feels resolved or not, or are too afraid of our partner’s disapproval to say what’s really on our minds, the result will be poor communication, and this will create distance, resentment, or both. It’s human instinct to get angry when our needs go unmet, especially by people who are supposed to be concerned about them. But if we don’t state our needs very well, we’re bound to have trouble getting them met.
Things are rarely that simple, though. Even if Schnarch’s concept of hanging onto yourself is crucial in a relationship (and I believe that it is), problems with doing it are likely to go deeper. If you grew up in a family where triangulation was the normal modus communicado; or your parents were stoic Scandinavians who were uncomfortable with emotions; or worse, if your parents were narcissistic, abusive, addicted, or otherwise emotionally unavailable, then “hanging onto yourself” is probably not going to come naturally. It is something you have to work at, not only in intimate relationships, but in general communication, as well.
I actually think the ability to “hang onto yourself” is a fairly rare trait. Between the walking wounded (i.e., those not operating on all cylinders because they expend so much energy maintaining false beliefs about their childhoods) and the superficiality that increasingly passes for deep conversation in our culture, there are not a lot of people skilled in trulyhearing the other, whoever that other may be. And the reason people lack this skill is largely the inability to remain present with themselves while interacting with other people.
I remember having a profound sense of this at my mother’s funeral ten years ago. My mother died just four days after I got home from a ten day, silent meditation retreat. I’m not sure how to describe my state of mind from this retreat, except to say that I was “intensely present” for several weeks afterward. I felt as though all my…channels…were open. (If you’ve ever had such an experience, you know what I’m talking about.) It was great while it lasted.
At the funeral, I was able to step back, in an almost- but- not- quite- out- of- body- way, and observe what was going on around me with what felt like crystal clarity. And what I saw was that all of my relatives were talking at each other rather than to each other. They all wanted each other’s approval in a big way; actually, I’m not sure if they wanted approval so much as it was just the only way they knew how to communicate with each other. In any case, there was a lot of cleverness, joke cracking, and witty reminiscing, but very little actual hearing–which I knew, in the state I was in, meant that there was no real effort to understand each other, to know where the Other was coming from; to connect. Everybody was so concerned about how they were being perceived that they didn’t have a lot of room left to care about how they perceived others–with the result that there wasn’t much perception going on at all. The whole room gave off the sensation of verbal bumper cars: people glancing into each other without any sense of awareness. Not a single relative seemed able to hang onto him- or herself in the presence of their family.
In this moment of realization, I felt a deep sense of compassion, and a deep sadness that it could be this way for people who were bright, college-educated, and, from the outside, appeared stable and accomplished. Emotionally, they were infants crying for attention. And because they were all infants, not a one was able to meet the needs of the others.
This need for attention is not childish. Or rather, it is, but not in any way that needs to be judged. People come by it honestly. Those who can so easily lose themselves do so because they never learned how to hang onto themselves as children–when we are supposed to learn it. We grew up so starved for authentic emotional validation that we didn’t even know what it was, even though we couldn’t escape our innate, biologically wired need for it.
I see this in my father, who holds people verbal captives, blathering on and on inanely about neighbors and store clerks and banal situations that hold no interest for the listener. He’s been starved for emotional validation all his life, and the only way he knows how to counter this feeling is to impress people with his verbosity, crude humor, and ability to shock. To deal with his lifelong void of authentic relationship, he has largely become anti-authentic: deliberately pushing people away when what he really wants is to be seen, heard, and understood. When I was younger, I was duped into thinking it was my job to fix this for him (or at least, I think this may have been what was going on). Not only was such fixing a Sisyphean task, it was what passed for connection in my FOO. Talk about a lose-lose bind between a rock and a hard place.
And this, boys and girls, is how the vicious cycle of not feeling heard results in not knowing how to hang onto yourself. If you want your narcissistic parent’s approval, you must banish all thoughts of having an authentic self with feelings, needs, desires, and a unique voice. No, you are a prop, an extension of someone else’s personality. Becoming a person in your own right, intact with your own boundaries about how you will and won’t be in the world, is not an acceptable path. It is, in fact, the cardinal sin in such a family.
In such a family, a child is likely to reach adulthood without the vaguest notion of what hanging onto herself means. Instead, she will hide her feelings, sometimes even from herself, if she thinks them unacceptable to the person she wants to bond with. Ironic indeed, because bonding is not really possible under such conditions, at least not the kind of bonding she yearns for in her heart of hearts. Hiding your emotional truth is, instead, a recipe for loneliness in the truest and most hollow sense of the word. There is no loneliness like the loneliness of feeling disconnected from the person you love most in the world.
In The Passionate Marriage, Schnarch talks a lot about how to hang onto yourself in the midst of conflict with your spouse/significant other. It’s important stuff. I agree with him that it is the key to increased intimacy and the deep connection we all desire; I mean, how can you connect with another person if there is no authentic “you” doing the connecting? But I think this concept goes beyond intimate relationships. I think it is the also the key to a healthy sense of personal autonomy; the foundation of knowing what we want, how we want to be in the world, what kind of relationships we want, our place in our communities. Being fully present with ourselves should be a goal for all situations, not just those that involve intimacy.
Schnarch’s book describes ways to hang onto yourself in an intimate relationship, and it’s good stuff. But he doesn’t get much into the deeper psychology of why we lose ourselves, which is just as important to understand, because this problem is rooted in our personal histories, and it affects more than just romantic relationships. Sometimes a lot of dot-connecting has to happen before we can begin even to entertain the concept of hanging onto ourselves. This was certainly true for me.
So, hanging onto yourself is easier said than done, particularly for those of us who were encouraged as children to believe that a healthy sense of self wasn’t so healthy. I don’t think anybody is able to hang onto herself perfectly, 100% percent of the time. It’s one of those things where we must be content with patient improvement, as the 12 Steppers say. (And having epiphany experiences like mine from the meditation retreat can help us define what we’re trying to do.) But I think patient improvement is a worthwhile goal here because, gosh, those moments when I’m able to hang onto myself, speak my mind, and stay present and respectful of the other person–well, they are some of the most satisfying I’ve had.
I’m not sure how I found this book. Maybe Amazon spammed me after I bought The Chemistry of Joy; I don’t remember. But even though I wasn’t looking for it, I almost read the book through in one sitting. It has hugely altered my perspective on psychiatry in general and psychiatric drugs in particular. I think it is a must read for anyone interested in psychiatry and particularly for anyone who takes psychiatric drugs or has loved ones who do.
Robert Whitaker, an investigative reporter and science writer, begins his exploration by explaining that since psychiatric drugs came into use in the 1950s, the number of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness has increased around 600%. Something like one in every 17 people is on some sort of psychiatric medication. One in seven people on Social Security Disability Insurance receives benefits because of a mental condition. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of disabled mentally ill children rose 35 fold. Most of the people on these medications are told they’ll have to take the drugs for the rest of their lives. The book, says Whitaker, is an attempt to answer the question: If these drugs work, then why are so many people sicker than ever before, for longer periods, with worse symptoms?
Whitaker tells a fascinating history of these drugs, beginning with Thorazine and working his way up to the modern-day antidepressants, antipsychotics, bipolar and ADHD drugs. The history of psychiatric drug development is very different from drugs developed to treat conditions with determined biological causes. For example, a scientist noticed the calming effect of Thorazine on mice and decided to try it on mental hospital inpatients to see how they were affected. Whereas drugs for illnesses with known physiology tend to be developed by “working backwards” from the cause, psychiatric drugs are developed mostly by observing their effects. The psychiatric establishment would have us believe these processes are the same but, biologically, they are not.
Why is this important? One big reason is that because the causes underlying mental illness remain unknown, nobody really understands how the drugs work, much less what their far-reaching effects are. SSRIs, for example, affect much more than serotonin in a system as complex as the human brain, but nobody really understands how or why. And the same seems to hold true for other classes of these drugs, as well. This wouldn’t be all that alarming if the studies of long-term effects were comprehensive and conclusive. But Whitaker uncovers overwhelming evidence that this is not the case, not for any of these drugs. And of the long-term studies that do exist, or that Whitaker pieced together himself, there is compelling evidence that these drugs are not only ineffective in the long-term, but that they are actually causing symptoms to worsen. In fact, the primary thesis in this book is that the mental illness epidemic in this country is largely iatrogenic–that is, drug-induced. The psychiatric drugs not only fail to help people in the long-term, they actually seem to make the symptoms worse.
Not only do the drugs appear to lack long-term benefits, but the side effects of some of them are horrendous. Antipsychotics and bipolar medication in particular can cause liver and kidney damage, elevate blood pressure and cholesterol, and induce diabetes. Some of the evidence suggests that people who take these drugs on a long-term basis die 15 to 25 years earlier than they should because of the toll the drugs take on the body. Taken long-term, ADHD drugs can stunt children’s growth. And many of the drugs, and/or withdrawal from the drugs, can cause hallucinations and violence, particularly in children. In a video on MadinAmerica.com (The title of Whitaker’s first book on this subject), Dr. Peter Breggin states unequivocally that every mass shooting in the past 20 years was committed by somebody on psychiatric drugs or trying to withdraw from them.
Perhaps the most chilling part of the book is the last section, where Whitaker tells how the psychiatric establishment deliberately fabricated a story to sell these drugs to the public. Psychiatry was the first medical profession to hire a marketing firm to sell an image, which they did in the early 1980s. And that image was that “psychiatry is a real medical science, with real medical cures for real medical problems.” And they pushed this message despite much evidence to the contrary and despite the questionable practices the drug companies used to get their products to market–practices that included suppression of “undesirable” outcomes, pre-screening and pre-drugging of participants to sway testing in their favor, and fudging of data to achieve desired results. (In fact, unscrupulous drug-testing practices by pharmaceutical companies is a topic unto itself. Much testing lacks rigorous standards, and by some estimates, up to 60% of the articles in medical journals are drug company plants. Here’s one blog devoted to this topic.)
The marketing campaign was one of the most successful in advertising history. Eli Lilly, the makers of Prozac, saw their net worth climb from around 3 billion in 1988, the year Prozac went to market, to more than 90 billion in 2000. 90 billion. And when the adult market became saturated, these companies expanded their market to children, with the goal of creating customers for life. And they have largely succeeded.
With so much profit at stake, these drug companies pay doctors and psychiatrists millions of dollars per year to promote their products and their views of mental illness. This establishment is so powerful today that the few doctors who’ve resisted it have been the target of smear campaigns. They’ve been marginalized, ridiculed, and discredited. Many have seen their research funding dry up overnight.
If you wonder how this can possibly be true, Whitaker provides plausible answers. While some psychiatrists are paid mouthpieces for drug companies, he says, others simply believe the established methodology because they don’t know any better. One of the most telling quotes in the book is from Colin Ross, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Southwest Medical Center in Dallas:
It was not surprising that medical students accepted the dogma of biomedical reductionism in psychiatry uncritically; they had no time to read and analyze the original literature. What took me a while to understand, as I moved through my residency, was that psychiatrists rarely do the critical reading either.”Conversely, Whitaker provides information on a few scattered programs that attempt to treat mental illnesses, from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to ADHD, without drugs. The results are nothing short of astonishing.
I have always been leary of psychopharmacological drugs, as evidenced by this post that I wrote a few years ago. I think my suspicion arose out of my doubts about the widely accepted disease model of addiction, which simply does not fit with people getting sober through the 12 Steps: the 12 Steps are a moral and spiritual program of personal change; they are a metaphorical medicine, not a literal one–a fact that is greatly misunderstood by many AA members, treatment counselors, and even doctors. (See my Addiction and Recovery archives for more information.) I have always believed the modern tendency to medicalize human behavior is reductionistic, and I have been skeptical that pills alone can make sad people happy and troubled people untroubled. I have long believed that medication should be used as a supplement to talk therapy, and rarely as a treatment in and of itself.
So I suppose I was ripe pickins’ for an expose about the evils of psychopharmacological drugs. Even so, I won’t suggest that Anatomy of an Epidemic is the final word on this topic. This is far too serious a topic to take the word of one measly book. Since finishing the book a few days ago, I’ve been perusing the websites and works of writers like Thomas Szasz and Peter Breggin. I have to say that the cases they make are as compelling as I found Whitaker’s to be. I hope anyone interested in this topic will not take my word, but do the research for themselves.
All in all, the book was a fascinating read, well-written and hard to put down. It was a fine introduction to an anti-establishment view of psychiatric drugs, and it offered some valid answers as to why mental illness is so rampant in the U.S. I believe it is essential reading for anyone interested in this topic, whatever conclusions you come to.
I recently had another FOO Facebook skirmish. I have a relative (not immediate family) with a very different worldview than mine. When I post something he disagrees with, he makes inflammatory comments, usually in all caps. I don’t know if he’s looking for a fight, trying to shame me into silence, or just a bitter old man taking out his frustrations on me. I don’t know him well enough to say. A few of my friends have gotten into verbal brawls with him, then given up because his contempt and his unwillingness to be rational both seem boundless. Last week, a friend of mine posted on my wall (and thanks so much for that support, you-know-who!) that he was out of line, and asked him why didn’t he just un-friend me if he had such a negative reaction to my posts? He responded that because I “liked to throw bombs” to intentionally to irritate him, I deserved rudeness.
Here is my response:
“She has a way throwing a bomb on facebook hoping for a negative response.” That’s not true, and it’s a pretty negative thing to say about someone you barely know. Facebook is all about people posting things they find interesting, relevant, funny, etc. Like the other 500 million people on FB, that’s what I do. To characterize this normal FB behavior as throwing a bomb sounds like a justification for rudeness, which gets us back to the original question. Nobody can force anybody else to act rude (or respectful, for that matter). Personal conduct is one of the few things in life we actually have 100% control over. Blaming anyone else for how we behave whiffs of an unwillingness to be accountable for your own behavior.
I haven’t heard a peep from him since. Not even on posts that probably drive him to apoplexy. This is the normal pattern, though; after things build to a confrontation and people start to step in and say something (my father even did once), he takes a breather, then starts up again in a couple of weeks as though nothing has happened. I don’t expect it to be any different this time. I don’t have any illusions that my little speech about personal conduct had any effect on him.
I’m not writing to complain about my crummy FOO. I’m writing to share an epiphany I had because of this situation. But before I get to that, I need to share some more background information. When I was still quite small, I remember this particular relative and my father having heated political arguments at family gatherings. I remember this relative getting nasty and personal, and trying to “win” by shouting louder and name-calling other people into submission. These were some of the few times my father actually backed down to keep peace, which, if you know anything about my father, says volumes.
I was a toddler, so of course I did not participate. But I remember the yelling, the tension, and how my grandmother and grandfather would fret and try to change the subject while everybody else kept silent and stared at the floor. Then, when we sat down to the meal, everyone would start to breathe again and small talk would ensue, with everyone carefully avoiding the offending topics for the rest of the day. I couldn’t have verbalized all of this back then, but my impressions of those days are imprinted in my memory.
And thank goodness they are, because I have been able to brush off the nastiest of Facebook comments by this guy as not personal–even though they are. They are directed at me. They are accusative, insulting, inflammatory, contemptful, and rude. And his statement that I am directing my posts at him says that, in his mind, it is indeed personal. It is not about the content of my posts, it is about my flawed nature as a human being.
Welcome to my FOO, paternal style. This is how they have always been. They are a glass-half-full kind of clan. They see the negative in people, real or imagined, and feel a duty to comment on it. Positives go unacknowledged, unless they’re something a person can’t really take credit for, such as “looking good after 40”. They see human frailty as something to be ashamed of, and go to great lengths to hide it from each other and I think even from themselves. I know, because I am one of them. I just happen to have a knack for 10,000 foot views, and a decade of therapy and meditation practice, which allows me to see a bigger picture.
Do you see what I’ve done here? I’ve globalized the negativity, shame, and emotional stuntedness in my FOO. And while globalizing is often unhelpful, it is exactly what this situation calls for. I have shifted my view from “I hate how they treat me” to “I hate how they are.” Seeing that my uncle’s caustic negativity is about him, no matter how much he makes it about me, has allowed me to see that all the patterns of FOO negativity go beyond me, and have nothing to do with me. No matter how much they make it about me. No matter how personal. No matter how much it hurts.
And believe me, it does hurt. I am not saying it no longer hurts. Just that I no longer believe the hurt comes from my being flawed, unlovable, or somehow deserving of it. The shame, unresolved anger, helplessness, rage, and contempt are all part of something bigger. I am merely an unfortunate recipient of a family system that somehow, somewhere, way back when, spun wildly out of whack and hasn’t recentered itself since. So even though it’s personal, it’s not personal. It’s just The Way Things Are.
For many years I have believed this intellectually. I knew my FOO was screwed up and that it went a lot deeper than me or even my parents. But this recent skirmish has allowed me to own it on a deep, visceral, non-verbal level. Where there was once a nagging doubt (“well, maybe some part of me really is unlovable…”) there is now a powerful certainty that the nastiness isn’t mine to own.
It is about shame. It is about unacknowledged grief. It is about wanting to be heard, seen, and appreciated in a way that no one in this family seems to do very well. It is about a past weighing down on the present and on future generations.
But it is not about me.
This shift is like a new day for me. For a couple of decades now I have been trying to find a way to resolve how bad my FOO dynamics felt to me. I have been trying to find a way out of my role as scapegoat, one who takes on the family shame and blame. I have continued to make it personal in my heart even though my head knew better.
But this new awareness goes beyond that heart-head struggle. It nullifies the FOO dynamics altogether. It nullifies the FOO standards, the FOO assumptions, the FOO pecking order that strives to keep us–all of us, not just me–in our place. How? Specifically, I think the “how” was about rejecting his characterization, and maybe about doing it in a public forum. “No,” I said. “That is not who I am. You are wrong about me. And I am not responsible for your error in judgment.” I did not rant, complain, or blame. I merely refused his characterization. Regardless of what he does with it (and I don’t expect it to be positive), I took care of myself. My FOO may continue to see me as a scapegoat (I have no doubt they will), but I no longer see myself that way. And that is huge.
Even when it’s personal, FOO or otherwise, it’s not personal. This thought has freed me in a way I don’t quite have words for yet. Suffice to say I’m feeling lighter and more at ease about the whole thing. The great FOO mystery is not completely solved, and I will always have grief to deal with, and I know nothing is likely to change on their end. But for the first time since I can remember, I seem to have found a way, emotionally speaking, past the shame- blame- contempt conundrum I call “family.”